The struggles are real for the Cavaliers as they’ve underperformed against the league’s best while LeBron James has the worst +/- since his rookie season.
CLEVELAND — It’s dangerous in the NBA to overreact; it gets people fired and it costs people wins, respect and money. The season is long, and that makes it forgiving, which is why anyone who has much experience preaches patience.
But the Cleveland Cavaliers are out of time. It’s preposterous to say that in February for a team with a history of turning things around and doing it when they have to. However, they are in a preposterous situation.
They aren’t just looking at losing this season, but they are looking at losing LeBron James. If tomorrow were the beginning of free agency, there’s a good chance that would be the case.
The Houston Rockets played beautiful basketball Saturday night in destroying the Cavs 120-88. Chris Paul was a maestro from the opening moments; it was a display of the reason why the Rockets are brilliant when he and MVP candidate James Harden are so great together (now 23-3 when both guards start). Paul was a breathtaking plus-47 for the night. The score probably could’ve been anything Paul wanted it to be.
But it was almost as if the Rockets were unwitting participants, executioners just there to do a morbid job and get out of the way.
The Cavs players do not trust each other. It appears as if some of them don’t like each other. Two of them — Iman Shumpert and Channing Frye — were told they’d probably get traded two weeks ago but then weren’t.
Their coach has been hesitant to shake up the lineup as he has failed to motivate his veteran team. Ty Lue’s performance has been questioned in recent weeks. His fidelity to playing certain lineups while abandoning others that previously were highly successful is so mystifying that it has launched conspiracy theories. Nonetheless, he is not at the center of the storm.
This is all a whirlwind around LeBron James vs. the Cavs front office, which is to say it’s about James vs. owner Dan Gilbert.
James (11 points, 3 of 10 field goals) is completely dispirited. Never before in his career has he played like this. Maybe on the occasional midseason evening he has been less than energetic — in the past, he has called it “chill mode” — but never like this.
Since the end of the NBA Finals last season, James has watched as Jimmy Butler, Paul, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Blake Griffin have been traded. None of them were sent to the Cavs. When the Cavs traded Kyrie Irving, the centerpiece of the deal was a draft pick.
Looking through his eyes, you can understand why he’s frustrated. You can understand why he sometimes feels like the organization hasn’t kept the pedal down. When he sees Isaiah Thomas struggling, trying so hard to fight through a devastating injury but having to go so slow that he’s hindering the Cavs instead of helping them, he wonders why they traded Kyrie Irving at all. And why they took the deal with the Boston Celtics, even though they had a chance to back out.
James must wonder: If the organization won’t go all-in to try to keep the best team around him, would he want to be elsewhere? Would he want to waive his no-trade clause?
Instead, he stews.
Then the Cavs look back and point out James will not commit to them past this season. Point out they tried to get him another star when coming to the brink of a deal for George last summer but stopped when James declined to commit to the franchise. They point out that they have the highest payroll in the NBA and are paying a hideously painful repeater luxury tax. That the team lost $18 million last season because it spent $25 million on luxury taxes.
Dan Gilbert has been here before. He spent wildly, got an old team and traded away a bunch of future picks in 2010 only to see James walk. The result was a miserable rebuilding process that lasted four years and was failing until James stunned them by walking back through the door.
The Cavs must wonder if they should just publicly come out and say they will trade everything, they will trade the Brooklyn Nets pick, if James were only to commit past this season. But if he won’t, they can’t sentence themselves to a miserable rebuild again. That would put it on his plate and take it off theirs.
Instead, they stew.
And the adversarial situation grows. And the team plays worse. And the pressure tightens. And the clock runs.
To those who know him, it was concerning two weeks ago in San Antonio when James came into a close game in the fourth quarter and seemed to just let the game go. He has come into hundreds of games like that, and if he didn’t lead his team to victory, he went to the finish line clawing.
In the games since, James’ defensive effort has further wilted. His aggression has waned. His frustration has extended. And his leadership, which at times has been controversial in its style but never questioned in its intent, has faded.
He is absolutely culpable; his past month has been one of the worst of his NBA life. This comes after the first two months of the season in which he was a leading candidate for MVP. Which makes his erosion all the more clear.
And the Cavs are culpable for allowing the trust and the relationship with management to crack. The Cavs know crisis better than anyone, they’ve been immersed in it on and off for four years.
But this is a different situation. Everyone can feel it.
They’re almost out of time, the chance to change the roster is running out. Even if it’s just to change the air in the locker room, the time is running out.
Before getting out of the arena and safely onto a plane away from the mess, Paul offered a warning. He’s one of James’ closest friends and he admits he’s biased. But he’s also one of the smartest men in the NBA and someone who has tried to chase a championship for years and failed.
“You’ve got LeBron James over there in that locker room. You know what I mean? What else the man need to do?” Paul said. “Don’t take it for granted, man, don’t take it for granted.”
With the trade deadline hours away and emotions so raw, that may currently be a challenge for the Cavs.